Sparrows Learn Complete Song from Song Snippets

December 09, 2004

A songbird can stitch together an entire melody after hearing only overlapping snippets of tutor song, scientists report in the December 09, 2004 Nature. Gary J. Rose and colleagues carved up a recording of a white-crowned sparrow’s song into several verses. They then played overlapping pairs of verse back to nestlings. Remarkably, the sparrows were able to learn to sing the entire song just from these snippets. Furthermore, sparrows that were tutored with overlapping reverse-order syllables learned to sing a fully reversed song.

During early learning, songbirds lay down a long-term memory or ‘template’ of the tutor song that is later used to guide vocal learning. This new behavioural study offers important clues to neuroscientists searching for the neural representation of the template, as it suggests that the template need not be a representation of the full song.

“[The results] add confidence to the view that over the next decade there will be dramatic progress in tackling the fundamental physiological questions about the song system,” says Daniel Margoliash in a related News and Views article in the same issue.

Abstract © 2004 Nature

“Species-typical songs in white-crowned sparrows tutored with only phrase pairs,” Gary J. Rose, Franz Goller, Howard J. Gritton, Stephanie L. Plamondon, Alexander T. Baugh, Brenton G. Cooper, Nature, December 09, 2004

Gary J. Rose, University of Utah


For more on bird song and spectrograms see Birds > Learning to Sing

Cowbird Song and Dance, research by Brenton G. Cooper and Franz Goller

Bird song on the brain, research by Timothy Q. Gentner and Daniel Margoliash